March 23, 2011

Twins Notes: Fifth starters, old friends, bullpens, and short shelf lives

Ron Gardenhire announced yesterday that Scott Baker will be in the rotation alongside Carl Pavano, Francisco Liriano, Nick Blackburn, and Brian Duensing, which means Kevin Slowey is bullpen bound despite a 39-21 record and 4.42 ERA in 82 career starts. Winning percentage is a mostly useless stat, but it's still notable that Slowey is headed to the bullpen with a .650 mark that ranks second to Johan Santana in Twins history among pitchers with 50 decisions.

I'm of the belief that both Baker and Slowey deserved rotation spots ahead of Blackburn, but with Gardenhire awarding Blackburn a starting job weeks ago that was clearly never an option and short of that Baker over Slowey is the right call. Baker is the longest-tenured member of the rotation and has a 4.33 ERA in 138 career starts, including a 4.49 mark in 29 outings last season after drawing the Opening Day assignment. He's a perfectly solid mid-rotation starter.

Slowey fits that description as well, but his durability has been in question since returning from late-2009 wrist surgery and there's been various speculation that the Twins aren't thrilled with his demeanor. It also likely didn't help Slowey's cause that he's not signed to a multi-year deal and is owed $2.7 million this season, whereas Baker is under contract for $11.5 million through 2012. To his credit, Slowey apparently took the demotion to the bullpen in stride yesterday.

Whether he'll be an effective enough reliever to gain Gardenhire's trust in a high-leverage role is unclear. Slowey has all of four career relief appearances, half of which came when he was a 23-year-old rookie in 2007, but has a 2.74 career ERA in the first inning and like most relievers the short appearances should help lessen the importance of his mediocre secondary stuff. As a reliever Slowey can focus on his fastball and slider while leaning less on his iffy changeup.

Of course, Slowey may not be long for the bullpen anyway. Rarely do teams make it through a 162-game season using just five starters, leaving Slowey just an injury away from being called back into rotation duty, and it wouldn't be surprising if teams have expressed trade interest in an affordable 27-year-old mid-rotation starter under team control through 2013. Shopping him seems natural, especially if they think No. 1 prospect Kyle Gibson will be ready by midseason.

• Dumped by the Twins and claimed off waivers by the Padres earlier this week, Pat Neshek flew from Florida to Arizona and tossed a perfect inning with two strikeouts yesterday. His first strikeout victim? None other than Carlos Gomez. Neshek is reunited with Jason Bartlett and Orlando Hudson, the latter of whom is already annoying new teammates with the same motor mouth that reportedly helped guarantee his departure from the Twins after one season.

Alex Burnett was seemingly never viewed as a strong Opening Day bullpen option thanks to last year's second-half fade and he's been assigned to Triple-A. He jumped all the way from Double-A to the majors and then struggled in 14 appearances following a midseason demotion to Rochester, so some more time there at age 23 is probably a good thing. I'm still convinced Burnett can eventually be a solid bullpen contributor, perhaps this season.

• Burnett returning to Triple-A, Neshek going to San Diego, and Slowey moving to the bullpen did a lot to clear up the relief picture. Slowey joins Joe Nathan, Matt Capps, and Jose Mijares as locks, with Dusty Hughes and Glen Perkins looking like clear favorites to serve as second and third lefties behind Mijares. That would leave just one open spot, presumably for a righty, with Jeff Manship, Jim Hoey, Kyle Waldrop, and perhaps Carlos Gutierrez as candidates.

Trevor Plouffe entered camp with at least an outside chance of pushing Matt Tolbert for the utility man job, but was 7-for-34 (.216) with seven strikeouts versus just one walk at the plate and was an absolute disaster defensively, making six errors in 16 games. He'll head to Triple-A for the fourth straight season, leaving Tolbert and Luke Hughes to duke it out for the backup infielder gig. For whatever it's worth, Hughes is in a 0-for-13 slump following a hot start.

• Last week I linked to a study showing that the Twins promote their position player prospects through the minors slower than every other organization and the first round of spring training cuts included a couple assignments that will add to those numbers. Chris Parmelee and Joe Benson were sent back to Double-A after playing 111 and 103 games there last year. Benson led New Britain in homers and OPS, so his repeating the level is the epitome of that study.

Ben Revere spent last year alongside Benson in New Britain's outfield, but he was assigned to Rochester in a move that makes it very clear he'll be the first outfielder called up if needed. Obviously no surprise after Revere spent most of September with the Twins last year, but his moving up the ladder while Benson stays behind is interesting given that Benson topped his OPS by 128 points at Double-A. Revere is more polished than Benson, but has far less upside.

• There's been very little talk about left-hander Scott Diamond potentially making the Opening Day roster and Rule 5 picks must be sent back to their original team if they aren't kept in the majors all season, but the Twins reportedly may try to work out a deal with the Braves to keep him without the Rule 5 restrictions. He hasn't been impressive this spring, but Diamond has a chance to be a useful back-of-the-rotation starter or middle reliever at some point.

• Injuries to Frank Francisco and Octavio Dotel mean Jon Rauch looks likely to start the year as the Blue Jays' closer and the Twins kick off the season with a three-game series in Toronto.

• It was fun while it lasted, but Gardenhire is already too in on the whole "just fire it through the internet" thing for the humor to really continue much longer. Based on various beat writer accounts of his media briefings the past couple days, Gardenhire has been jokingly mentioning the internet, blogs, and Twitter seemingly every other sentence and has apparently also come up with his own set of accompanying sound effects. We'll always have the t-shirt, at least.

• Speaking of beat writers, Jon Marthaler of Twinkie Town put together some brilliant advice for Rhett Bollinger as he replaces Kelly Thesier at MLB.com.

February 16, 2011

Top 40 Twins Prospects of 2011: 20, 19, 18, 17, 16

Also in this series: 1-5, 6-10, 11-15, 21-25, 26-30, 31-35, 36-40.

20. Tom Stuifbergen | Starter | DOB: 9/88 | Throws: Right | Sign: Netherlands

YEAR     LV      G     GS      ERA        IP       H     HR      SO     BB
2009     RK+    13     13     3.28      79.2      79      4      69      6
2010     A-     19     17     2.98      93.2      99      5      88     23

Tom Stuifbergen signed with the Twins out of the Netherlands as an 18-year-old in 2006 and missed all of 2008 following shoulder surgery, but bounced back to be a member of the Dutch pitching staff coached by Bert Blyleven in the 2009 World Baseball Classic. At the time he had never thrown a pitch above rookie-ball, yet Stuifbergen matched up with Ubaldo Jimenez and tossed four shutout innings versus the Dominican Republic in the tournament's biggest upset.

After playing in the WBC he spent 2009 at rookie-level Elizabethton, posting a brilliant 69-to-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 80 innings while inducing 64 percent ground balls, but Stuifbergen also missed some time with elbow problems. Last season was a similar story, as the 6-foot-4 right-hander fared very well at low Single-A with a 2.98 ERA and 88/23 K/BB ratio in 94 innings, but missed a chunk of the season with more elbow issues.

Clearly staying healthy is key for Stuifbergen, who's appeared in just 40 pro games, but even in limited action a 169/33 K/BB ratio in 188 innings is impressive and he's still just 22 years old. His raw stuff isn't overpowering, but Stuifbergen throws strikes, misses a fair number of bats, and induces grounders in bunches. Right now Nick Blackburn seems like a decent comparison, but if he can stay healthy for a while and add some velocity he could have mid-rotation upside.

19. Chris Parmelee | First Base | DOB: 2/88 | Bats: Left | Draft: 2006-1

YEAR     LV      PA      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR    XBH     BB     SO
2008     A-     289     .239     .385     .496     14     27     52     83
2009     A+     501     .258     .359     .441     16     44     65    109
2010     A+      93     .338     .430     .463      2      5     13     11
         AA     463     .275     .341     .389      6     33     43     70

Through his first four pro seasons Chris Parmelee stood out in a system full of toolsy, athletic hitting prospects because his game was about power and patience, but last year at the Twins' urging the 20th overall pick in the 2006 draft totally overhauled his approach. It accomplished what the Twins had in mind, as he hit .285 between high Single-A and Double-A after coming into the season as a .250 hitter and also struck out 43 percent less often than his career rate.

Unfortunately, as his contact and average increased Parmelee's power vanished. He homered just eight times in 133 games and his Isolated Power was 42 percent below his career mark. His walk rate also fell by 22 percent. Add it all up and despite a 35-point uptick in average and 43 percent fewer whiffs his on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and OPS were all lower than each of the previous two years. In other words, the change in approach made him worse.

Or at least it did in 2010. Clearly the Twins felt that, despite solid overall production in the low minors, Parmelee's original approach made him unlikely to succeed in the majors. And they're probably right, as most of the majors' best low-average, high-power hitters actually hit above .280 in the minors. On other hand, regardless of the approach being used if Parmelee can't rediscover his power everything else will be a moot point. Power is the non-negotiable part.

18. Alex Burnett | Reliever | DOB: 7/87 | Throws: Right | Draft: 2005-12

YEAR     LV      G     GS      ERA        IP       H     HR      SO     BB
2008     A+     28     25     3.76     143.2     151     12      84     36
2009     A+     18      0     1.99      22.2      14      0      26      7
         AA     40      0     1.79      55.1      36      2      52     19
2010     AAA    14      0     5.49      19.2      26      1      18      8
         MLB    41      0     5.29      47.2      52      6      37     23

Alex Burnett thrived while transitioning from starter to reliever at high Single-A and Double-A in 2009 and last April the Twins bypassed several more experienced relief prospects to call him up when they needed immediate bullpen help with injuries to Clay Condrey and Jose Mijares. He found success right away, throwing 31 innings with a 26-to-11 strikeout-to-walk ratio and 2.30 ERA through mid-June, but then fell apart and kept struggling after a demotion to Triple-A.

Burnett allowed 20 runs in his final 16 innings with the Twins and had a 5.49 ERA in 20 innings at Triple-A after posting a 1.85 mark between Single-A and Double-A in 2009. It wasn't pretty, but Burnett's low-90s fastball and mid-80s slider combination showed plenty of potential and it's important to remember that he was a 22-year-old in his second season of relief work. Plus, with a 4.54 xFIP in his 48-inning debut Burnett pitched better than his 5.29 ERA shows.

He'll get another chance to establish himself in the majors this year, perhaps right away, and is capable of becoming a key component of the Twins' bullpen long term. Burnett has thrown a total of 98 innings in the minors since becoming a reliever, posting a 2.57 ERA and 96/34 K/BB ratio while allowing just three homers. He obviously needs to bounce back and iron out some rough spots, but it wouldn't be surprising to see him in a late-inning role down the stretch.

17. Carlos Gutierrez | Reliever | DOB: 9/86 | Throws: Right | Draft: 2008-1

YEAR     LV      G     GS      ERA        IP       H     HR      SO     BB
2008     A+     16      0     2.10      25.2      23      0      19      7
2009     A+     11     10     1.32      54.2      37      1      33     22
         AA     22      6     6.19      52.1      62      6      32     24
2010     AA     32     16     4.57     122.0     136      7      81     50

Carlos Gutierrez began his college career as a starter, but moved to the bullpen after Tommy John surgery and served as the University of Miami's closer in 2008 before the Twins selected him 27th overall with the compensatory draft pick received for the Angels signing Torii Hunter. In the three seasons since then Gutierrez has moved back and forth between the rotation and bullpen, but his success as a starter has been limited and he projects as a full-time reliever.

Because of the frequent role changes it's difficult to get a handle on Gutierrez's upside by way of his numbers. He's been dominant at times and awful at others, but the overall performance is mediocre with a 3.93 ERA and 171-to-105 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 259 innings. However, as more or less a one-pitch pitcher Gutierrez should fare better when working exclusively as a reliever and that one pitch is a sinker that induced 60 percent ground balls at Double-A.

Once the Twins cease trying him as a starter Gutierrez has a chance to move very quickly and perhaps even join the big-league bullpen this year, but I'd like to see him thrive in a relief role for a few months before assuming he'll make a late-inning impact. Right now Gutierrez's upside is based more on the praise for his "power sinker" than his actual performance, but mid-90s velocity and a 60 percent ground-ball rate are pretty solid building blocks for relief success.

16. Max Kepler | Center Field | DOB: 2/93 | Bats: Left | Sign: Germany

YEAR     LV      PA      AVG      OBP      SLG     HR    XBH     BB     SO
2010     RK-    153     .286     .346     .343      0      7     13     27

American-born Kathy Kepler and Polish-born Marek Rozycki met while starring together in the Berlin ballet and their son, Max Kepler, signed with the Twins out of Germany as a 16-year-old in July of 2009, getting an $800,000 bonus that ranks as the largest ever given to a European position player. When he wasn't busy getting his driver's license and going to high school in a foreign country, Kepler held his own while debuting in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League.

He showed limited power, but hit .286 with a decent walk rate and, most importantly for a raw 17-year-old, continued to impress with his physical tools. Asked to assess Kepler's first season Twins vice president of player personnel Mike Radcliff focused primarily on his work ethic and success "navigating the baseball life on and off the field," but also pointed to his "unbelievably athletic body ... pretty swing, terrific bat speed, and strength." In other words, so far so good.

For now at least Kepler projects as a potential center fielder, but that may change quickly once his 6-foot-4 frame fills out and he played all three outfield spots in rookie-ball, where Baseball America named him the ninth-best prospect in the upside-filled GCL. He's likely still a season or two from facing full-season competition, so thinking about how Kepler might look roaming the outfield at Target Field is very premature, but if he gets there the ceiling could be sky high.

July 20, 2010

Twins call up Anthony Slama, demote Alex Burnett to Triple-A

Alex Burnett experienced initial success after making his big-league debut on April 8, tossing 31.1 innings with a 2.30 ERA, .225 opponents' batting average, and 26-to-11 strikeout-to-walk ratio through mid-June. Since then he's coughed up 12 runs in 9.2 innings while walking more batters than he struck out and allowing opponents to hit .466, and after his fourth ugly outing of the month last night the Twins demoted Burnett back to Triple-A.

To replace Burnett on the roster and in the bullpen the Twins called up right-hander Anthony Slama, who ranked 19th on my list of the team's top prospects heading into the season and has been deserving of a chance for some time now. Clearly the front office doesn't believe in Slama, keeping him in the minors until five months before his 27th birthday despite a 1.80 ERA in 235 career innings and Ron Gardenhire making it pretty clear he wanted to give him a look.

However, his amazing minor-league track record screams out for an opportunity. I don't expect Slama to be an elite reliever and he's no sure thing to even develop into a quality setup man, but when someone holds opponents to a .170 batting average while racking up 83 strikeouts in 68 innings at Triple-A there's no reason not to give him a shot. Hopefully he'll thrive like Pat Neshek, who the Twins were similarly skeptical about before finally giving him a shot in 2006.

As for Burnett, his overall numbers were reasonably strong for a 22-year-old rookie getting his first taste of the majors, with a 4.39 ERA and 30-to-16 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 41 innings. He showed a promising fastball-slider combination after making the switch from starter to reliever just last season and certainly looks capable of being a key part of the bullpen long term. He jumped straight from Double-A to the majors, so some time at Triple-A is hardly a bad thing.

April 19, 2010

Mijares to the Disabled List, Neshek and Blackburn Hurting

All of my talk about how the Twins could best use the 25th roster spot became sort of a moot point over the weekend, as Jose Mijares was put the disabled list with a strained elbow and Pat Neshek received a cortisone shot in his injured middle finger that has him unavailable for a few days (and perhaps headed to the DL himself). Alex Burnett replaced Mijares, turning right around after being optioned to Triple-A, and they'll be short-handed while waiting on Neshek.

Assuming nothing serious Mijares' injury may not be such a bad thing, because he struggled in five early appearances after thriving as a rookie and the Twins reportedly aren't happy about the big left-hander getting back into bad conditioning habits. Placing him on the DL also clears (or at least delays) any potential bullpen logjam once Clay Condrey gets healthy and rather than demoting Mijares they can now give him some time at Triple-A via a rehab assignment.

Neshek's finger injury is unfortunate because he spent 16 months recovering from Tommy John surgery and has looked very close to his old self in four appearances. Hopefully a few days off and a cortisone shot can do the trick, and if not at least the injury is unrelated to his surgically repaired elbow and perhaps some time on the sidelines right now could help him stay strong down the stretch. Still, a tough break for someone who deserves better on and off the field.

In other injury news, Nick Blackburn complained of elbow soreness following his poor outing Saturday against the Royals and his next turn in the rotation has been pushed back one day. Carl Pavano will move up one spot to take his usual turn, giving Blackburn an extra day to rest before facing Kansas City again this weekend. For now at least the Twins have indicated Blackburn's elbow problems are minor, although true or not they almost always say that first.

I'm on record as saying that the Twins made a mistake in handing Blackburn a long-term deal and the risk of injury is one of the reasons why, but it'd be a shame if he got hurt before the new contract even got a chance to kick in. With even fewer strikeouts than usual while serving up six homers in 19.1 innings and showing what's for him at least poor control he certainly has not looked good through three starts, and apparently the elbow soreness predates Saturday.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

• Since the Twins have tonight off I'll be doing a "live chat roundtable" with Phil Mackey, Seth Stohs, John Bonnes, and Parker Hageman at 1500ESPN.com. We'll start at 8:00 p.m. and you can ask us questions, make comments, or just read our ongoing discussion. I'm not sure how long the whole live chat will last, but I'll stay for the first 45 minutes or so because ...

• I'm also scheduled to be the guest on Travis Aune's podcast tonight at 9:00 p.m. I've never been on Travis' show before, but we're slated to chat for about 30 minutes and you can listen online by clicking here.

• And since I'm just listing off plugs at this point, you can also find me blogging throughout the day at Hardball Talk on NBCSports.com and get my in-game commentary, random thoughts on non-Twins stuff, and links to articles by following me on Twitter.

April 15, 2010

Twins Send Burnett Back to Minors, Call Up Mahay

Following yesterday afternoon's loss to the Red Sox the Twins optioned Alex Burnett back to Triple-A and called up Ron Mahay, transferring Joe Nathan to the 60-day disabled list to make room on the 40-man roster for the veteran left-hander. Even at 39 years old Mahay should be a decent middle reliever and the Twins will use him primarily as a lefty specialist, pushing Jose Mijares into more of a pure setup role (if he gets on track) and Brian Duensing into long relief.

Burnett looked good in his first taste of the big leagues, flashing a low-90s fastball with the type of quality off-speed stuff you'd expect from a former starter, but at 22 years old and with a grand total of just 57 career innings above Single-A he'll likely benefit from some additional seasoning at Rochester. In calling up Mahay the Twins once again bypassed Anthony Slama, and unlike with Burnett the 40-man roster situation can't be blamed.

Mahay obviously fills a different role than Slama would and apparently the Twins feel strongly about needing a third left-hander in the bullpen, but it'll be interesting to see what happens once Clay Condrey is ready to come off the disabled list. Burnett initially replaced Condrey and he or Slama could have simply been sent back to Triple-A when the time came, but there's no such option with Mahay, who'd have to clear waivers and accept an assignment to the minors.

Perhaps when Condrey and his $900,000 salary are ready to return the Twins will keep Mahay as the bullpen's second lefty and send Duensing to Triple-A to work as a starter, but short of that or simply releasing Mahay if he doesn't impress right away I'm not sure what the plan is now. And then of course there's the issue of whether a seventh reliever is even more useful to the Twins than a fifth bench guy could be, although they seem committed to a 12-man staff.

Certainly there are times during a 162-game season when the extra bullpen arm comes in very handy, but more often than not it's tough to find consistent work for 12 pitchers when not so long ago the average staff had 10 or 11 guys. Burnett was with the Twins for 10 days, during which time they had just one off day and the starters had a fairly light workload of 6.1 innings per outing, yet he was called upon for just 2.1 innings and a total of 38 pitches.

Whether used on a pitcher or a position player the 25th spot on the roster won't have much of an impact, but with Drew Butera and Alexi Casilla extremely limited in their usefulness and Jim Thome more or less strictly a pinch-hitter the Twins' current four-man (or maybe 3.5-man) bench could probably make better use of an extra body than the bullpen has so far. Along with Burnett barely seeing action in 10 days, Mijares and Duensing have combined for 5.1 innings.

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